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Frida Kahlo self-portrait breaks records by selling for $34.9 million

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A 1949 self-portrait by Frida Kahlo broke records this week when it sold for $34.9 million. That is the most money ever paid at auction for a work by a Latin American artist. NPR's Mia Estrada has more.

MIA ESTRADA, BYLINE: The crowd at Sotheby's is anticipating the next buyer of Frida Kahlo's self-portrait from 1949.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUCTION)

OLIVER BARKER: And I'm going to start the bidding here at $26 million. So 26 million, 27 million, 28 million now. We're 28 million, $29 million.

ESTRADA: The portrait in question is called Diego y yo, or Diego and I. The auctioneer is giving a warning now.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUCTION)

BARKER: For $31 million - last chance. It's Anna's bid at $31 million. Thank you very much indeed.

ESTRADA: The historic moment happened on Tuesday night at Sotheby's Modern Evening Sale in New York. The painting was sold in just under two minutes. And though it might be small, the auctioneer called it one of the most important artworks by Kahlo ever to come to auction. It was completed five years before the Mexican artist died in 1954. The self-portrait of Kahlo shows tears flowing from her eyes. There's also a portrait of her husband, Diego Rivera, sitting above her eyebrows.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "THE REVELATIONS OF FRIDA KAHLO'S SELF PORTRAITURE")

ANNA DI STASI: She has such a powerful gaze. She just stares at you, and she just cuts through. And those three tears rolling down her cheek are just the most powerful tears I have ever seen in the history of art.

ESTRADA: That was Anna Di Stasi in a promo video released by Sotheby's. Di Stasi is a director of Latin American art there. She said the portrait suggests intimate details of her marriage with Rivera, including an affair Rivera had with the actress Maria Felix the same year.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "THE REVELATIONS OF FRIDA KAHLO'S SELF PORTRAITURE")

DI STASI: This completely destroys her.

ESTRADA: The final sale of Diego y yo at 34.9 million beat Kahlo's previous public record at 8 million. Diego y yo also beat her husband's painting, The Riveras (ph), which was the previous auction record for a piece of Latin American art. In a news release, Di Stasi called the auction result the ultimate revenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "THE REVELATIONS OF FRIDA KAHLO'S SELF PORTRAITURE")

DI STASI: A work like Diego y yo is a once-in-a-lifetime picture. This is a landmark moment for modern art.

ESTRADA: Kahlo's painting was sold to Eduardo F. Costantini for his private collection.

Mia Estrada, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN MAYER SONG, "PAPER DOLL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.